I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.

In the photo, 5-year-old Skylar Herbert stands smiling in a royal blue tutu, holding her Elsa and Anna dolls from Frozen. Her shirt says, ‘My Destiny’s Calling.’ Her light blue shoes sparkle.

Skylar tested positive for COVID-19 in March. She died Sunday, Michigan’s youngest coronavirus victim.

Thousands took to social media to offer prayers and support for the family.

“This beautiful young soul is gone too soon. … You hear news reports and sometimes because of all that has happened, we become numb, or simply don’t pay attention,” Fred Durhal III of Detroit, who is part of Skylar’s extended family, posted on Facebook. “However, when it hits home we are reminded of the importance of life and how much we need to appreciate it. Tonight hit home.”

This week, the USA neared 900,000 coronavirus cases and had almost 50,000 deaths.  Those numbers are beyond tragic. But people don’t internalize big numbers as deeply or personally as the story of one little girl in Detroit.

Statistics don’t “hit home.”

There is a reason for this: It’s called ‘psychic numbing.’ Paul Slovic has studied this for decades.

“Our feelings can’t add, and they can’t multiply,” says Slovic, president of Decision Research, a nonprofit research institute, and a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. “So we respond very emotionally to one person who’s in distress or in need, especially if they’re right in front of us. Even if we just read about them, if it’s an individual with a name and a face, then that moves us.”

However, numbers are just that, numbers. We know that 88 is one more than 87, he says, but we don’t “feel” that additional number. When we share Skylar’s story, readers connect emotionally.

This is how our brains evolved from the earliest days, he says, when the threat that needed your attention was the one right in front of you. It’s the same reason we can hear a whisper but tune out a cacophony of sound. We can see in dim light, but details get washed out in bright lights. 

This can be a problem for public officials dealing with COVID-19, Slovic says. “When they’re thinking about doing things that might affect thousands of people, then I worry that they’re vulnerable to thinking that these are just numbers, not people.”

Lives are never just numbers to us. We will continue to tell the stories of the people behind the statistics: A little girl who loved princesses. A father who loved campfire songs. 

Don Adair, 76, was a father of four and a doting grandfather of five. He entered the hospital in Rochester, New York, this month with a minor infection. Soon he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and struggling to breathe. The nurse called his daughter, Abby Adair Reinhard, and placed the phone to his ear. He couldn’t talk, but he could listen. 

USA TODAY reporter Trevor Hughes  told their story:

Pacing in her bathroom, Reinhard struggled to catch her own breath, to hide her sobs from her three kids. To listen. To speak.

“I love you,” she said.

“Thank you.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I forgive you.” 

After half an hour, she realized she could conference in her siblings – Tom, Carrie in North Carolina and Emily in Denmark. They stayed on the phone for hours, singing campfire songs, telling stories, remembering their childhood.

After 36 hours, they decided to take a break. An hour later, the phone rang. He was gone. 

If she’d stayed on just one more hour, she could have been with him when he died. Maybe he didn’t want his kids to hear him go.

She looked down at her iPhone, still connected to his hospital line.

“I love you, Dad,” she said in to the phone.

Then there is Meghan Harpole, a single mom and a nurse, who battled coronavirus for two weeks. She said it hurt so bad, ‘it felt like my bones were breaking.’  

Her 13-year-old son, Gentry, had it as well.  They were quarantined together. Friends dropped off groceries on the front steps. Neighbors wrote uplifting messages on the sidewalk out front.

On Easter weekend, she was taking 52 breaths each minute, her oxygen had dropped so low she knew she had to go to the hospital. She was worried that she wouldn’t come out. 

Kristina Goetz of the Louisville Courier Journal shared her story: 

She walked into the living room and told Gentry she had to go to the hospital.

“You know I love you,” she told him. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. And you’re the best part of my story. So I just need you to be real brave right now and know in your heart that everything is going to be OK.”

He wasn’t crying but looked at her with a puzzled, wide-eyed look.

“Mom, just promise me you’re going to be OK,” he said.

They hugged and kissed goodbye, and as soon as Harpole shut the front door, she sobbed.

“I can’t imagine being 13 and thinking my only person may die,” she said. “I just can’t.”

She had made a plan. Friends would sit in the driveway every day until she came home, so Gentry could see them and know he wasn’t alone. 

Harpole came home again, weak but alive, with oxygen, breathing treatments and antibiotics.

She’s one of tens of thousands of people recovering from the virus. 

With a story we need to hear.

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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow here on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here. You can subscribe to this newsletter here.

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